We have always argued that seeing our political landscape in terms of Right vs Left is an outdated concept. What other concepts may be more appropriate? Here we explore the idea of looking at the UK political landscape in business terms as incumbents vs entrepreneurs.
Established political parties with traditional leaders are the incumbents. They are the equivalent of large, oligopolistic corporations. Slow moving, stuck in the old ways of doing things and fighting for the status quo that favours them. Their success depends on having a captured base of support to which they can play. They favour their base while trying to expand it at the edges to gain their overall majorities. In essence, their business model is one of rent-taking – using their dominant market position as their main advantage.
Insurgents (which we believe to be a more appropriate term than the rather dismissive ‘populists’) are the entrepreneurs. They imagine a different world. They invent a different way of doing things. They are not bound by the previous rules of engagement. They duck and dive, respond and change their ways quickly. They have a much deeper understanding and are closer to the needs and psychology of a specific customer base. They capture that base, learn and expand from there. They have another particular skill – the ability to first needle and then punch the incumbents in their weakest spots and in a way that makes it difficult for them to react effectively.
UKIP, Trump, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Podemos, the Five Star Movement. These are all political entrepreneurs. Trump’s was a double success. His entrepreneurial approach first overcame the Republican establishment and then the Democrats.
In this framework, the UK Labour Party has made a monumental strategic mistake – and is bearing the consequences. It should have been acting as an incumbent. Using its dominant market position and building on that. Instead, it decided to abandon the large swathe of moderate Labour voters without having any idea of how they would be replaced. And, as a party and with its current leader, it does not have the capability to be entrepreneurial. Some of its factions do. Momentum is an entrepreneurial organization. It has mobilised a large group of ideologically aligned supporters and energized them. It is imaginative. It does not play by the rules. The trouble lies in the numbers. Momentum cannot mobilise enough new voters to make up for the loss of the moderate group the party has abandoned.
The SNP was also entrepreneurial – which explains its success. In Scotland it is now an incumbent that has managed to maintain the perception of anti-establishment entrepreneurialism. A bit like Google. How long this position will remain sustainable is uncertain. But probably not for ever. Cracks are starting to appear – both for the SNP and for Google – and they will need to adapt.
This framework poses fundamental questions for the Lib Dems. The party is long established and has an incumbent’s mindset, structure and way of doing things. However, fourth both in the polls and in presence in the House of Commons, the party does not have the market power of an incumbent. Yet neither does it have entrepreneurial capability. In business, this position is a dangerous one to be in. Success from this starting point usually depends on discarding the incumbent mindset and developing an entrepreneurial capability while making sure one continues to benefit from the advantages that previous incumbency has provided – something not available to start-up entrepreneurs. It remains to be seen whether the party can pull that off.